The Paternity Leave

It’s common among bloggers to challenge each other. I was recently one of five bloggers challenged by the Norwegian blogger Lammelårtanker. She blogs about issues related to children and parenting, as well as being a participant in the general public debate. This is the first time I’ve been challenged to write on a specific topic. She raised 10 indicative questions for me to get started. I might write additional posts to answer more of them, but in this I will try to touch the first two questions. This is all of them:

  1. What did you think about paternity leave before and after you had it?
  2. Would you prefer the mother to stay at home while you took over the child care?
  3. Would it be more attractive to you to have a longer leave than the father’s quota if it was less financially stressful?
  4. Same as above, but “if you had several male friends who had paternity leave at the same time”?
  5. Honestly: Is paternity leave just a long, lousy holiday?
  6. If you only consider yourself, does it feel a bit ok that the mother takes care of the kid so that you can do something more exciting?
  7. Are you sick and tired of everything called paternity leave and equality, and feel that the mother can take care of that?
  8. What is a real man?
  9. What makes you feel most masculine?
  10. Is financial control and supporting your family important to you?

My answer might be more personal than a direct answer to the questions. I’m a bit all over the place while working on my entries, and I’m never quite sure where I’ll land. First some background information. We have a very generous parent leave in Norway. The parents can either have 49 weeks off and be fully paid, or they can have 59 weeks and get 80 % of their salary. The topic for this debate is the father’s quota which is 14 weeks. This is an attempt to get fathers to take more responsibility by giving them 14 weeks of paid leave, but if they decline, the mother can’t use these 14 weeks. These weeks are extra and only for the father. There is also a mother’s quota of 14 weeks, which is a part of the 49/59 weeks, and the rest of the leave the parents can split between them. The rules say that the father’s leave is invalid the first 6 weeks after the baby is born, but he can take the first two weeks off. The problem is that the government doesn’t pay for those two weeks. In some industries it’s a part of the collective agreement to have two weeks paid paternity leave, while in others you don’t get paid.

The reason this old debate is current again is because the Conservative government, which has been in power since October last year, is going to reduce the paternity leave by 4 weeks from July this year. They have always been against it because they feel that the paternity leave is forced and removes the father’s freedom.

The paternal quota was never relevant to me, so I never educated myself properly on the topic. I can’t remember what I thought about my quota. I think I was positive to a few weeks at home, but that was in theory. I had some great thoughts about not making the mistake of just doing the fun parts, while my wife did all the things that actually demanded something of you. There was a discrepancy between my implementation and my own philosophy, however. I understood the necessity of paternity leave afterwards. I am, however, still unsure about the ideology behind the scheme. Maybe I’ll get my mind organized well enough that I’ll understand more before I finish this post, because I have some idea of ​​what to write. It’s just a matter of organizing my archive.

I was looking forward to becoming a father in 2005, but I lost my job the same week. It was not surprising; I had been warned in advance that I would be redundant. I was the newest teacher at a vocational school in my hometown Haugesund. There were fewer students that had applied to this school the following year, and they also had to save money by combining classes in the two subjects I was teaching, so one of us had to go. I had thus a mixture of positive and negative thoughts and feelings when my daughter was born. My wife is from the U.S. and we had lived three years in Norway when our daughter was born. I had heard of several cases at the time in which foreign women were deported from Norway because their Norwegian partner didn’t have a high enough income. That and the importance of having a stable enough income so that I could offer my family a permanent address has always been important to me, and it’s something I still haven’t achieved.

Life was still good in 2005. I understand some of the basis for the political agenda behind this, but I don’t think it’s enough time to achieve the purpose, whether it’s 10 or 14 of weeks. What happens afterwards is more important. I read somewhere that the political idea behind is that the leave will change the relationship between mother and father, between employers and employees, and between father and child. I suppose the father is meant to accomplish this within 10 weeks. No pressure there, in other words.

The idea is perhaps that 10 weeks is the absolute minimum, a place where negotiations between the parents starts. I don’t know what the statistics say about how common it is for men to use their 10 weeks, and what they are used for, but suspect there is great variation. It’s a holiday for some, and I’m sure many do maintenance around the house as well. I think it’s been several years since I commented a few articles on the topic on online newspapers. I was being criticized because I felt that my quota shouldn’t only be about my relationship with my daughter, but also about giving my wife a better chance to recover. This had certainly nothing to do with paternity leave, according to some of the women that responded to my comment. I understand that now that I read on the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Adiminstration’s website that paternity leave can’t be used during the first 6 weeks of the child’s life. That’s because the mother is more important for the child during the early weeks, but that’s probably when the mother needs the most help too. That’s why fathers, in my opinion, should have had a longer leave, and divide it in two periods. Our daughter weighed less than 1,700 grams. She had to have food every 3 hours and I think we changed the diaper more often. That is difficult enough without having been through a pregnancy with preeclamsia and a cesarean section.

I see myself as quite sympathetic. I like to think that I show concern, especially for my family, but was probably a bit passive. I would have helped out when my daughter was a newborn if I had been asked, but my wife thought that I should know when she needed help. She said that if women have to ask their partner for help, it feels like they are forcing their partner. I didn’t know what to do, but could have done what might be the logical thing, offer help or ask for some instruction. I was told I needed to help out more some weeks after we brought our daughter home, clearly enough that I knew what to do from that point. Then we got a fair division of labor. We had borrowed a pump from the local health clinic and could therefore have a stock of breast milk. That meant I could feed the little one too.  I didn’t think it was that bad, but it seems quite unsympathetic when I write about it now. But I pulled myself together after some well-earned and harsh criticism. It worked out after a few weeks.

We have many pictures in our family albums, but there’s one I particularly like. It’s of my amazingly small daughter sleeping on my chest. I think this is partly the point of paternity leave. It is supposed to help fathers come closer to their kids very early. I have therefore been more present than my father was (in his time responsible thing was to marry and then make yourself inaccessible), both in terms of the unpleasant things like changing diapers and later creatig boundaries, but also play. It’s amazing what that little girl has gotten me to do in various roll playing games, but now I mostly play on my home turf. The girl will turn 9 years old in three weeks and I’m still her hero. Yesterday we hunted for insects in the garden, this morning I was attacked by a cute little zombie before breakfast, and we will hunt fish and crab at the beach this weekend. Everything alive is fascinating, but it’s probably not long before the more feminine interests come to the surface. I’ll probably be soo lame then, but I believe that the close relationship we have had uninterrupted since I held that little body that weighed 1689 grams at the hospital, will last a lifetime. I believe that it will help her when she gets ready to fly solo as well.

I’m not sure if my experience is so unique. It might be just an assumption, but it seems that many see the child care as mother’s domain for quite some time initially. There are certainly some who do not care, but some of us also want to contribute but may need a kick in the pants to get us started.

The debate over paternity leave should engage men more, It’s still mostly women discussing the issue, but it does not seem like years of gender equality has altered the notion that mother and baby sounds better than father and baby. I thought at first it did not matter so much about the paternity quota being reduced, because fathers can take a larger share of parental leave anyway. The Socialist politician Audun Lysbakken warned a few years ago against removing the father’s quota because he felt it gave men freedom of choice. He probably has a point. It allows us to show that we care. It gets a little harder to claim the same as this quota gives us.

Another question is why we have paternity leave at all. I think it would be valuable if both parents were at home during paternity leave, but it seems like the goal is the opposite. I think many expect mother to work during that period. I have previously written about the birth rate being too low in Europe. The women must give birth to an average of 2.2 children to keep a population stable. If the number drops down to 1.4 would a society would collapse within 40-50 years (it is immigration that saves Europe). They are at that level in several major European countries, while it’s at 1.7 in Norway. I think the expensive arrangements we have in Norway can take some credit for us possibly slowing down the trend, and possibly reversing it. I also think paternity leave has to do with getting women to return to work sooner, and thus maintain a good relationship with the employer. This makes it just as much about equality, it’s about making women able to earn their own money, and not be dependent on their partner. The Equality and Discrimination Ombudsman also criticized the reduction in the father’s quota recently on the basis of equality.  When politicians say this is about giving fathers a freedom of choice, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t the whole truth. The thinking behind paternity leave is very complicated.

I feel a strong discomfort in having to recognize that a smooth socialist politician has a point, But there is actually something to the great paradox that coercion can give freedom of choice. The changes paternity leave create at home and in relation to the employer, are not going to happen automatically. These changes takes long time and are expensive, but the rewards are enormous. I think therefore the Conservatives are wrong when they focus on paternity leave being coerced.

On a private level the whole family wins because there is more bonding between parents and children, on a business level the employer wins because it’s probably easier to keep women employed, and on a social level society wins on what is perhaps Europe’s most successful family policy. It is a little strange that children are still the woman’s domain. There is perhaps something in my wife’s idea that if I don’t do something, it looks like I do not care. Change happens terribly slowly. I remember an interview a Norwegian journalist did with the woman who led the big demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1989. They sat in a park, and a man pushing a stroller walked by. This pleased her, because it was progress compared to how thing are in China. So we’ve probably taken another step, but it is slow. That’s another reason for some coercion. Back on a personal note, I had some issues with getting close to my daughter, at first. It was not easy to get out of my shell, but it was important. I encourage all fathers to think that the time you spend with your kids changes you in a positive way, but it also changes your kids. It is important for children to have two equal parents. I see my girl getting excited about spending time with me every day. She loves to be with his mother just as much, so I think we have managed to create a balance.

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